Friday, September 29th, 2006

Perfect Circle

Every year or so I go into a big R.E.M. kick. I recounted my history with the band during one of these phases a couple years ago and I find that when you’re as inundated (and occasionally assaulted) with as much new music as I am, it’s helpful to retreat and recentre oneself – get back in touch with one’s roots, so to speak. Be reminded of a time when music was a single, beloved cassette tape in a walkman, played to the point of death and not a half-dozen CDs and press releases in a bundle of padded manilla envelopes in the mailbox.

But it was one of those padded manilla envelopes that brought me the new R.E.M. compilation And I Feel Fine…: The Best Of The I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 and its companion DVD When The Light Is Mine: Best of The I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 Video Collection. I didn’t pay this release much heed when it was first as it’s generally wise not to when bands you grew up with go into archival mode, but I have to say – I’m really enjoying this double-disc set.

Now while my R.E.M. indoctrination began two albums into the Warner years with Out Of Time, I almost certainly spent far more time immersed in the I.R.S. material. All of those albums, and Document, Lifes Rich Pageant and Eponymous in particular, all got heavy, heavy, HEAVY rotation through my teen years and I’m very pleased at how well that material has held up over the years. Hell, just the Murmur material is still amazing – “Radio Free Europe” is and always will be a first salvo for the ages. But while cuts like “Harbourcoat” are missed, the 21 tracks on the first disc do a great job of reaffirming early R.E.M.’s greatness. In a way, the second disc (come on, who would only get the one-disc version?) is even better, offering rare live tracks, outtakes and alternate mixes as well as band-selected album cuts that while they couldn’t qualify as “hits”, are certainly essential pieces of the puzzle. You can hear how young, creative and intent on making music they were and that’s an interesting contrast to the current incarnation they’ve (d)evolved into over the past 25 years.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying I liked Stipey better when he had bad hair, wouldn’t make eye contact and mumbled a lot. The glam activist icon thing just isn’t doing it. Of course, if they were still making good music all would be forgiven but they haven’t made an album more good than bad this century and though they say that they’re ready to rock on the next album, don’t forget that the last time they said that we got Monster. Not exactly one for the ages. I’m not ready to write them off completely yet but you can’t help but think they should have made good on their promise to call it quits when Bill Berry left in 1997.

This trip down memory lane did make me wonder one thing – in today’s ultra-wired society, does there even exist the sort of environment or underground that would allow a band like R.E.M. to slowly grow and develop as they did over their ultra-prolific six-year run on I.R.S.? Able to garner enough of an audience to sustain and motivate, yet stay out of the spotlight and remain insular enough to grow artistically without the huge pressures of an entire, oh, blogosphere watching and documenting their every move, performance and utterance? Not to say that today’s young artists are stifled by the attention, but it must have an effect on your work to be under the microscope like that.

The liner notes from rock scribe Anthony DeCurtis also make this point, declaring it inconcievable that the band (and by extension, any band) could find the “opportunity to evolve and discover its voice without the pressure of having to generate enormous sales”. Which is not to say that I yearn for the days pre-internet or that bands today are at a disadvantage for being able to tap into a potential worldwide audience or be declared saviours of popular music simply by posting their first recording on MySpace, but still. Makes you wonder who, if anyone, of today’s younger acts will be able to craft as long and generally productive a career or will the hyper-accelerated and miniscule attention span mindset of today’s audience simply not allow it? Or will we all die in a horrific meteor strike before anyone finds out? Place your bets.

I haven’t watched the DVD yet but do remember seeing most of the videos from this era on TV at one time or another so I know what sort of low-budget, ’80s-styled goodness awaits. And you can see a few of the vids on the ecard for the compilation – I dug up a couple other faves on YouTube. For audio, I will offer my one adjustment to the And I Feel Fine tracklist and direct you to RBally, who has a complete live show in Germany circa 1985, Marathonpacks, who wrote a short love letter to “Shaking Through” off Murmur and Aquarium Drunkard, who contemplates “Carnival Of Sorts (Boxcars)” from Chronic Town. And some guys called Pavement once wrote a whole song about Reckoning. “Time After Time” was their least favourite song. “Time After Time” was their least favourite song.

MP3: R.E.M. – “Harborcoat” (from Reckoning)
MP3: Pavement – “Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence” (from No Alternative)
Video: R.E.M. – “Fall On Me” (YouTube)
Video: R.E.M. – “Driver 8” (YouTube)
eCard: And I Feel Fine…: The Best Of The I.R.S. Years 1982-1987

The Philadelphia Inquirer talks 50 states with Sufjan Stevens but manages to avoid asking outright, “can Pennsylvania be next?”. Sufjan has covered R.E.M. in the past.

MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “The One I Love”

Tinderstick Stuart Staples will play a solo show at the Mod Club on November 2. I presume Staples has heard of R.E.M.

np – Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 / Ole! Tarantula

By : Frank Yang at 9:01 am
Category: Uncategorized
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  1. Sasha Furlani says:

    Nice write up Frank. I had a very similar experience with REM, but started shortly before Green came out in ’88 (I was just entering high school). Luckily a friend’s wise older brother immediately put us through our paces with Murmur, Reckoning, Fables, Chronic Town etc. so I have always felt the same about that era and always return to those records with sheer love. I saw the Green tour at MLG in ’89 and it was the defining show of my youth, and the 1st step in my musical awakening (the last show I saw before them was Huey Lewis with my parents in ’86! heh heh).

    Don’t know if it is recoverable anymore, but before that show in ’89, muchmusic ran a show called "100 Minutes with REM", filled with great old videos and live clips, and interviews with the band all from their "golden age". Great show, and a nice reminder of when Much used to actually be a good source of music journalism.

  2. Sasha Furlani says:

    Oh yeah, and for a great taste of the Green Tour, grab a copy of the DVD "Pop Tour ’89". REM at their absolute peak! So good that I totally wore out the VCR tape I had it on….

  3. Larry F. says:

    Thanks for the link to Harbourcoat, a song from my favorite R.E.M. album.
    I picked up on them while in college with Murmur and followed them thru Automatic for the People. I’ve been kinda neglecting them since then, but look forward to picking up this retrospective as all my old R.E.M. is either on vinyl or cassette.

  4. joseph scott says:

    Not to take anything away from the IRS-era REM (who could take anything away from that?), but you should really give "Reveal" another listen. Too many people write off the post-Bill Berry era; think what you will of "Up" or "Around the Sun," but "Reveal" is an amazing album.

  5. Hugh says:

    My beef on the two disc best of:
    Radio Free Europe, Sitting Still, Finest Worksong, Life And How To Live It, Gardening At Night.
    Include the rarities of those tunes and add:
    Wolves, Lower
    Exhuming McCarthey
    Maps And Legends

  6. greg says:

    Frank, intriguing point you bring up about a bands ability to grow and develop, but I really don’t think things have changed in the last 20 years. Of course there wasn’t the blogosphere back in 1981 when REM was hitting places here in the south, but when they released Chronic Town, the EP spread like wildfire from college radiostation to college radiostation. The blogs seem to have taken over for the college stations, of course in a totally different storefront. By the time they released Murmur I would bet large money that the majority of us kids in college who had any taste in music, knew who REM was and likely had a chance to see them in some bar, with stipe often turning his back on the audience and mumbling away. I can recall REM opening for the Police. I went to see them in DC and in Hampton Va, but both crowds pretty much disrespected REM. "Whats he saying?" "This sucks" etc was what I heard from the barely dimmed arenas when REM played.
    It was with reckoning and finally with Fables that the less progressive radio stations began to play and those who don’t have a thirst for music began to discover.
    Just thinking out loud, I easily see the parallels between REM and the Decemberists (please, I am not doing a musical comparison!). Picaresque has come out like reckoning did (ie hey these guys are good! "Yeah I’ve been into them since I read about them on Chromewaves (or put in blog name here)") and I can see the Crane Wife becoming something more acceptable to the mainstream audiences, just like Fables, though perhaps not as Pop-y as Fall on Me.
    IRS was indeed the best of REM times. And Hugh, I like your picks. I just think that if you even think you like REM, go buy Chronic Town, Murmer, Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction for your album collection. You won’t be sorry. Oh and with chronic town, find a stereo (skip the ipod for now) and turn it up really loud and enjoy

  7. hermance says:

    I was going to comment first about Frank’s point about bands finding their voice amidst the pressures of the blogosphere, but then I noticed on one of the comments that Exhuming McCarthy isn’t on the set? I know it’s got to be hard to choose tracks, but one thing that’s held me back from buying the set so far (though I know it’s only a matter of days until I cave) is the fear that it will just be a "greatest hits" sort of thing. Assuredly, I’ll buy the two-disc version, but still, I’d like it if more of these collections leaned more toward showing depth and breadth rather than just picking the more predictable tracks.

    That said, I agree with Frank’s comments about the difficulty for bands to find a voice and mature amidst all the pressure and attention. However, this post also reminded me of seeing M. Ward recently. As I watched Ward and the idolizing sold-out crowd, I couldn’t help wonder what made this guy so big–without air play, much promotion, or significant tv/movie appearances. Some of his success has to be attributed to the internet, but I would assert that Ward is one of the rare artists whom I think is developing the same way he would have without all of the "indie" attention. I’d also say the same thing about Will Johnson from Centro-Matic.

  8. palpable says:

    Like Sasha, I started listening around Green and then worked backwards. That show at Maple Leaf Gardens was good. I will never forget Feeling Gravity’s Pull. The film playing in the background was a camera that started at the bottom of a lake and ascended slowly through the cloudy water until it bobbed on the surface and then continued rising into the air. I know Michael has always been into film. It was such a perfect mix of sound and video, as the camera drifted up and up and up into the clouds as the wickedly REMish song reached its pinnacle – "Gravity pulls me down". It was beautiful.

    Stipey also made fun of the whole touring thing too when he addressed Toronto by saying Hello "Your City Here" as the words scrolled behind him teleprompter style. Or something like that. Orange Crush was also so well done, with Stipey doing the voice-over through the megaphone into the microphone. Nice effect.

    I continue to listen to Fables and Document. Life’s Rich Pageant has to be my favourite. That first bass line of Begin the Begin always causes me to stop and smile. And then Peter’s guitar crashes in.

    There are two gems that I discovered along the way. I picked up the Chronic Town EP at a vinyl collectibles sale. I don’t know if that is where the slow version of Gardening at Night is, but I love that slow version. And then somehow I got a copy of So Much Younger Then, which is where you can really appreciate the band’s evolution.

    Now I’ll have to pick up a copy of Tourfilm and revisit the ’89 concert. Nice posts everyone.

  9. thomaus says:

    The sound of Chronic Town is amazing for an EP. But I always go back to what Mitch Easter and Don Dixon pulled together on Murmur. The overall feel of that album, and the embellishments added at the edges are something that has really stood the test of time. As far as I can tell, the vinyl version still is the best way to listen. It has a very immersive sound.
    There’s a good article commemerating the 20th anniversary of the album from the Charlotte paper Creative Loafing: http://charlotte.creativelo… Many quotes from Mitch, Don and the band.
    I guess I should buy the book:
    The book could go next to the 13 CDs, 10 albums, 8 singles/EPs/flexi-discs, 3 videos, 1 DVD and 3 limited edition CDs. I guess I liked the band, too.

  10. jennings says:

    Great post . . . I have a "My life with R.E.M." post in the wings as well . . . .

  11. thomaus says:

    Here’s another tangent:
    I stumbled onto a "controversy" on wikipedia about the actual track order on the Cronic Town EP.

    So, I got the bright idea to email the designer, Curtis Knapp.

    Here’s the response:
    CT is a 12 inch 45 (basically). I think you play it at 45???
    I pulled out a cassette here……, side 1 Wolves Lower Gardening At Night Carnival of Shorts (Box Cars) side 2 1,000,000 Stumble
    Does that help?
    Advise? Never Ever give a girlfriend the job of laying out YOUR cover design!!!
    My mistake.
    Design idea? M Stipe had the idea of the Gargoyle and blue/green color. You find a Gargoyle in NYC (hahaha). I found one in a small shop (6 inches high). I made the 12 inch print and then with photo paint made the image more (something). Pointer horns etc. Michael speaks in Athenian lingo. You’d have to have lived in Athens GA to get it. I did, I do. Stipe has a totally cool creative mind. Also Buck and other Athens’s folk; Keith & Ricky, Cindy, Kate, Vic Varney Betty Alice, Steve Hinton etc…… where all very simulating when I was there 77-78, for my creative mind. Do see, if you where ever a Method Actors fan. They fuckin rocked. Yet Vic seem to be in quieter years now.
    Hope that helps?
    Wow, the Internet actually works sometimes.

  12. palpable says:

    Thomaus – reminds me of the film, Athens Georgia: Inside/Out.